Remember when Steve Coffman asked us “what if you ran your library like a bookstore?” (American Libraries, March 1, 1998.) Not just any bookstore, but a mega-chain that has its books selected centrally and doesn’t pay its floor workers much because, hey, reference services are an unnecessary extravagance anyway.
Now digital media consultant Joseph Esposito asks “what if Wal-Mart ran a library?” He predicts our days are numbered because we’re simply too expensive and inefficient.
If Wal-Mart ran a library, there would be fewer libraries, but they would be much, much larger. Wal-Mart would study the entire supply chain, from authors all the way to readers, to root out inefficiencies. If a particular vendor proved to be hard to deal with, Wal-Mart would encourage other vendors to enter the area. Wherever possible, solutions would be sought with information technology rather than high-cost First World labor . . . It is not only the cost of academic journals that is unsustainable, but also the behavior of entire institutions that are currently operating outside the demands of a globalizing society steeped in industrial processes and a stubborn, if narrow, view of accountability.
Of course, if there were fewer libraries, and those that survived were run this way, we’d stop supporting academic programs that were small or unproven, we’d avoid stocking material that wasn’t sufficiently popular, we’d outsource as many functions as we could, and (like Coffman’s bookstore model) we wouldn’t bother building collections geared to local needs. Not to worry: higher ed as we know it is doomed, anyway.
We’d also be enough of a monopoly that we could bully publishers into meeting our terms. Lest you think “hey, he’s got a point” – consider SPARC and other efforts to reinvent scholarly communication. We’re already having an effect. But Esposito would disagree: he thinks open access is a bad idea and will end up costing more than traditional publishing, redirecting the expenses from libraries to authors and their institutions.